Studies have proven addiction is a disorder of the brain. Physical and biochemical changes in the brain caused by substance abuse perpetuate addictive behaviors despite the negative consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. It is estimated that nearly 20 million Americans over the age of 12 suffered from some type of substance abuse disorder in 2017. As complex mental health conditions, substance abuse disorders can cause serious health complications as well as strains in relationships, financial issues, and legal ramifications.
Understanding the mental and physical crux of substance abuse is important to informing the way we approach addiction recovery. Now, scientists are getting closer to pinpointing the physical location of addictive impulses in the brain.
In 2016, Dr. Olivier George of Scripps Research and his colleagues reported that they located a possible source of alcohol addiction in the brain: a group of connected cells (or neuronal “ensemble”) in a brain region called the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA). Further research focused on a subset of neurons within this ensemble called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurons, which constituted 80 percent of the CeA. These are believed to be linked to the urges related to alcohol abuse and addiction.
As part of this extensive study, scientists with Scripps Research have successfully reversed alcohol cravings in alcohol-dependent rats by temporarily turning off the neuronal population in the brain responsible for those urges. Using lasers to target this specific neural cluster, scientists were able to reverse addictive behaviors and reduce withdrawal symptoms. Given the similarities between human and rodent brains, this suggests that it may be possible to address addiction at a neurological level.
“This discovery is exciting—it means we have another piece of the puzzle to explain the neural mechanism driving alcohol consumption.” Dr. Olivier George states.
As an associate professor at Scripps Research and senior author of the new study, Dr. George believes identifying these neurons is key to developing drug therapies or even gene therapies for alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse disorders. This potential medical breakthrough could completely change the way we treat drug and alcohol abuse in the future, helping us to end the substance abuse epidemic affecting the United States.